NSA's quest for diversity called risky Employees say personnel practices weaken security; Agency is reducing staff; Complaints, lawsuits illuminate friction based on race, gender HTC

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The National Security Agency, whose size, secrecy and mission were spawned by the Cold War, is in the midst of !B personnel changes that current and former employees warn are a threat to national security.

In interviews and in federal lawsuits, NSA workers say some of the agency's most senior personnel are being forced out as the nation's biggest intelligence agency attempts simultaneously to reduce and diversify its staff.

An uneasy atmosphere, some say, has fostered strife over promotions and job security at the elite electronic-eavesdropping agency.

As a result, some question whether national security is being imperiled by inexperienced employees being promoted to sensitive jobs to meet hiring quotas.

At least a dozen lawsuits filed recently illuminate the racial and gender friction within the agency.

Former employees call senior leadership the "Irish Mafia" and the Office of Discrimination Complaints and Counseling "a party organization for blacks."

White men, white women, black women and black men have all claimed that secretive and subjective personnel rules have violated their civil rights.

Jane S. Harris, a black NSA employee who failed to get a promotion, stated in a discrimination suit filed against the agency last year that personnel officials blame members of minority groups for racial tension.

"It is a white majority problem," she said. "And the effects are felt by people of color."

In recent months, three such suits have been dismissed as groundless.

A Glen Burnie lawyer says he has received more than 20 requests since April from NSA employees considering legal action.

The lawyer, Emile J. Henault Jr., a former 27-year NSA employee, said, "Suddenly it's become overwhelming."

He said that there is a consideration beyond morale and that he questions whether the agency can remain competitive.

"They've lost their technological edge," Henault said. "I don't think they can survive when other agencies [at the Pentagon] are doing their job better. I never thought anyone would be able to do it better."

The main concern, though, is whether, in its push to diversify its work force, the agency is leaving sensitive national security tasks in the hands of untrained workers. One former NSA veteran offered as evidence a recent travel report.

Such reports, which are required of NSA employees after business trips, are unclassified, available on request to anyone outside the agency. The report in question, filed by an inexperienced agent, detailed a trip to a city in Colombia that revealed classified details of the Drug Enforcement Agency's operation, down to the location of offices, names and secret technological information.

Such slips are not the only national security risk, NSA veterans say. This year, the agency's personnel office, prompted by a growing number of incidents, warned employees against using the Internet to access adult "news" groups and other pornographic sites.

Doing so not only violates NSA work rules but is considered a risk because foreign agents could try to blackmail employees discovered with explicit or illegal pornography.

Domain of white males

Shielded by national security concerns during the Cold War, the NSA was among the least diverse agencies in the federal government for decades -- fewer than one in 10 employees was a member of a minority group. It was, by and large, the domain of highly trained white men.

That ended with a 1994 investigation by the Defense Department's inspector general that found "the NSA had not identified systemic problems and barriers faced by women and minorities in recruitment, hiring, promotion or career development."

Congress demanded action, and the next year, the NSA completed its first plan to recruit members of minority groups.

At the same time, Congress asked the agency, Maryland's largest employer, to shrink the 20,000-member work force it had built up during the Cold War. And a commission run by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown stressed last year the need for a younger work force.

By conservative estimates, the agency has pared 2,200 jobs in the past two years through attrition and early retirement. Of the 1,178 employees who left last year, almost 70 percent were white men.

"They are having a problem modernizing their work force," said a congressional staff member familiar with intelligence issues who requested anonymity.

"Using the bully pulpit to get them to change is one thing. But we may give them extraordinary powers [such as

early-retirement incentives] to reach their goals. The health of the agency depends on it having a large influx of talented young people. It is a substantial concern."

Falling short of goal

Lt. Gen. Kenneth A. Minihan, named NSA director last year, described "the painful process of change" before the House Select Committee on Intelligence in September.

"We are moving beyond diversity solely as a demographic exercise focused exclusively on race and gender," he said. "The message is this: Diversity encompasses and benefits every employee at NSA, and making diversity work is part of each of our jobs."

It hasn't been easy making the NSA "look like America," Minihan told Congress. The NSA wanted one of every three new employees to be a member of a minority group.

Nevertheless, of 425 people hired during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 20.5 percent were members of minority groups and 23.8 percent were white women, between 10 and 13 percentage points short of the hiring goal.

That left a work force with a slightly increased proportion of members of minority groups -- from 11.3 percent in 1993 to 12.7 percent three years later.

The push to diversify, though, has spawned a whole new bureaucracy within an agency already dubbed "the Puzzle Palace."

The personnel office now uses a "Diversity Model" computer program. The Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization charts agency minority contracting.

A Systemic Barriers Process Action Team was created to identify problems with minority promotion.

In addition, an agency once so secret that its employees were forbidden to tell friends where they worked now sponsors

programs for Women's Equality Day and Hispanic Heritage Month that feature speakers from outside the agency.

A new class is available to employees called "Selection Board and Cultural Diversity Training Course." This summer, the agency will hold its first I Am an American Day.

Nonetheless, annual employee complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have doubled. In 1990, 17 employees filed claims with the watchdog agency. In 1995, the number was 45, and in nine months so far this fiscal year, 33 workers have filed.

The complaints continue even as the NSA has changed its promotion policy.

Now women and minority candidates receive at least one round of extra consideration for promotion.

And that has its own problems. In February 1993, William J. Sonntag, an NSA employee, was up for promotion to deputy division chief. He did not get it. All three slots went to women. In May 1995, he filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

"I was denied consideration of a management position on the sole basis that white males were not being considered for three such jobs in my office," Sonntag states in his lawsuit.

But Sonntag, an Ellicott City resident, lost his case last year. "It is fair to say that the entire thrust of [the] plaintiff's position is that [it] prohibits affirmative action," wrote Judge Frederic N. Smalkin in his ruling.

Sonntag, who is appealing the judge's ruling, and other NSA employees allege that the agency uses an aggressive brand of affirmative action to deny promotions and even to fire employees.

Henault calls the personnel office, which works with NSA's medical staff and counseling office, a "paramilitary group." He said the agency uses information from confidential employee-counseling sessions to revoke security clearances -- and, with them, jobs.

A weekend drunken-driving arrest, which used to prompt counseling sessions, now frequently results in the loss of a security pass and dismissal, he said.

"When you say 'national security,' everybody just wilts," Henault said. "Everybody hides under it."

Sonntag alleged in his suit that the NSA "deleted crucial data on my qualifications from my personnel file," which the agency denied. A former NSA employee said he was told to leave the agency after almost three decades or else medical benefits to his wife, who suffers from a chronic illness, would be cut off.

Attempt to embarrass

In another case, a female employee, who filed her suit under the name "Jane Doe" fearing retribution, claims that the NSA released her confidential personnel files to embarrass her in an outside court case. The agency defends the release as legal.

"That is why the morale is so low within the intelligence community," said Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer who represents Jane Doe. "They make a mistake, and they refuse to accept responsibility. They go out of their way to avoid it."

Other suits accuse NSA psychologists of producing false medical evaluations to justify the revocation of security clearances, which are required for agency work. The federal civil service offers legal job protections, but a security clearance is not a right and can be pulled at a supervisor's discretion.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a security clearance can be revoked subjectively and that no right exists to appeal the decision.

In response to questions from The Sun about personnel policy, the NSA public affairs office issued a statement that: "Far from diversity diverting our focus from national security issues, it strengthens us as an agency. It is the law of the land, it is congressionally mandated and it is the right thing to do."

Pub Date: 7/06/97

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